WITH stars and respected personalities of almost every field – from politics to comedy, food to football – the Oxford Literary Festival is not just a celebration of books, but of life itself.

This weekend the event is back for the 27th year, with a typically rich and eclectic line-up of guests and contributors – with more than few household names.

Spanning 10 days, from March 16-24, the festival will see more than 400 speakers enlightening, educating and entertaining audience members in the city.

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The event, held in partnership with the University of Oxford, the Bodleian Libraries and Netflix, is also distinguished by its unique venues – many ordinarily closed to the public.

“The Oxford Literary Festival is one of the world’s greatest cultural events,” says the festival’s special adviser Tony Byrne.

“Visitors can meet and listen to authors and experts from dozens of countries discussing every imaginable subject from literature, history, biography, politics, science, technology, medicine and economics, to philosophy, poetry, ethics, religion, the environment, travel and culinary traditions.

Oxford Mail: Michael RosenMichael Rosen

"The festival features some of the most eminent figures of our age. No other university in the world has a festival of literature, culture and current affairs as large and prestigious as Oxford.”

Scottish author and playwright Ali Smith will be presented with a literary award, while another will be handed to Nobel Prize winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse.

Also appearing are outgoing Chancellor of Oxford University Chris Patten, ex-Manchester City footballer Nedum Onuoha, former Tory Party leader William Hague, poet and writer Michael Rosen, writer and ghost expert Danny Robins, historian Avi Shlaim, musician Katie Melua, and comedians Ruby Wax and Ben Miller, along with Will Hutton, Jacqueline Wilson, AC Grayling, Dr Neil MacGregor, Martin Thomas, Matthew Parker, Val McDermid, Joanne Harris, Zeinab Badawi and many more.

So what makes it so special?

“The festival is hosted at beautiful historic university and college venues across the city centre,” says Tony.

Oxford Mail: Kate HumbleKate Humble

“Crucially, the Oxford festival has a very long-standing commitment to freedom of speech. If the great issues of the day can’t be discussed openly, in a civilised manner at Oxford, where else in the world can this happen?”

He describes how they event began.

“It was 29 years ago when two friends planned a small two-day festival with 10 speakers over a weekend,” he recalls.

“The vision was to establish an event which allowed the people of the city and county to encounter some of the many great minds in all fields, who came to Oxford every year, but only spoke to university or student audiences.”

And it has mushroomed into a truly diverse cultural celebration.

Oxford Mail: Ali SmithAli Smith

Highlights, according to Tony, will include William Hague talking to Dinah Rose about his political life and with perspectives on the current turbulent Westminster scene (Sunday, March 24 at the Sheldonian), and former Anglican priest and writer Sir Chris Bryant talking about his life and why he is drawn to writing (Sunday, March 17 at the Sheldonian).

“As part of our literature strand we are also hosting exceptional novelists from Britain, Ireland, the USA, France, Spain, Nigeria, China, Czech Republic, Georgia, Ukraine, India and Cyprus,” Tony adds.

“But the most popular event will be Lord Patten’s last appearance at the festival before he retires as Chancellor of the University.

“For over two decades, he has been a tremendous supporter. On Monday, March 18, at the Sheldonian, he will talk about a ‘World in Turmoil’”.

Oxford Mail: William HagueWilliam Hague

By way of contrast, Oxford United are sponsoring an event with footballer Nedum Onouha who is talking about his book, Kicking Back.

“Oxford United plan to use this partnership as an educational opportunity for their own teams and in the hope that those passionate about football across all ages and parts of the city will come to listen and ask questions,” says Tony.

He insists it all adds to the events inclusivity, with events appealing to ‘town’ as well as ‘gown’.

“The festival runs a series of projects in schools in the lead up to the festival and initiatives such as working with Oxford United as sponsors hope to inspire a new generation of festival goers,” he says.

“In addition, there will be BBC World Service radio events on the last weekend of the festival which will be broadcast from Worcester College and are all free.

“There are also free events at Blackwell's Bookshop and the Bodleian Library.”

So how is the talent selected?

“All the speakers are chosen by the festival director, Sally Dunsmore, who co-founded the festival,” he says.

Oxford Mail:  Zeinab Badawi. Picture by Jamie Simonds Zeinab Badawi. Picture by Jamie Simonds

“Sometimes it takes years to secure legendary speakers. At other times great names have appeared who want to speak at Oxford – like Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, American Opera legend Jessye Norman, and two former Presidents of Ireland – Dr Mary Robinson, and Dr Mary McAleese.”

To ensure it appeals to families, there are also children’s events.

Tony adds: “We have had a major programme for years of the most famous writers for children and young people – staged at weekends to enable families to attend.”

The festival had a tough time during the pandemic but, says Tony, it has bounced back in spectacular style.

“At the beginning of the pandemic we had to cancel the 2020 festival just two weeks before it was due to open,” he recalls.

“We had to stand down over 400 speakers from more than 40 countries. There was no festival in 2021, and then the 2022 festival was hit by the Omicron virus - and we lost 50 speakers.

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“We paid all our bills. But were left with £150,000 of ticket money we couldn’t repay.

“Most ticket holders either donated their tickets money to the festival or accepted the offer of free tickets; an offer kept open for three years.

Most of the festival’s sponsors and donors kept faith with us for two years.”

And it is set to grow.

“There are a host of very exciting new projects for the years ahead," he says.

"Watch this space!”

  • The full programme and information on how to book tickets can be found at oxfordliteraryfestival.org